Posted 16 July 2007
For most people e-mail is the most important Internet application.
The advantages of fast and cheap messenging makes it the medium of
choice for getting your message across. It is also the most misused
and misunderstood mediums of communicating.
Most email problems come from sender misunderstanding how email
works and the context in which they are sending. The context is critical
as you can give the wrong impression with the wrong salutation or
lends itself to a casual and concise form.
As Email is a conversational medium, dont write novels
and dont get too formal. Be brief, casual and try to keep it
friendly, or at least polite.
Remember that email is also a permanent medium. Somewhere, someone
probably has a copy. Never write anything that you wouldn't want to
see next to your picture on the seven o'clock news.
Does this email need to be sent?
Let's face it, we're drowning in email. Some of it is spam, some
of it is silly jokes and one in a hundred is actually useful. If it
isn't relevant to the recipient do them a favour don't send it.
Urban myths and false virus warnings irritate busy people and make
you look silly. Check any stories and warnings before you pass them
on. Do an Internet search or visit the excellent Urban
Legends Reference Page.
Don't spam your address book
Unless there's a good reason, don't send an email to everybody in
your address book. Remember to only send a message to people that
You also need to be careful of disclosing people's email addresses.
If you are sending to a lot of people, use the blind carbon copy,
or BCC, function. This hides everybody's addresses.
Replying to emails
Another problem with spamming is "reply all" function. This means
everyone who recieved the original gets a copy of the reply. Don't
do it unless it's relevant to everybody who got the original.
Context is important with email. How you open and sign off an email
to your friends will be different to a job application. Given the
casual nature of email, the most common salutations and sign-offs
are "dear john" and "regards". If in doubt, always choose the more
If you are responding to an email, a clue is to use the same form
the sender uses. Although new users tend to be more formal since they
are finding their way.
The important thing is not to be too cute or intimate. Save that
for your nearest and dearest.
Keep your attachments to a reasonable
size. Large attachments
can take ages to download and can completely foul up the recipients
inbox. Generally anything over 1Mb should be eyed with suspicion.
It is possible to reduce the size of attachments by compressing
files. Windows XP, Vista and Mac OSX have built in functions to reduce
the size of the files.
Make sure your attachments are readable. The
receiver has to have a program that can read your attachments. If
they don't, they will get an error message or gobbeldy gook.
Subject lines make or break an email. Busy people use the subject
line to decide what is relevant. If your subject doesn't grab their
attention, it may not get read.
Put a relevant and short subject line on your
mail. You dont want people to think your mail is spam
so be careful about Dont send messages with blank subjects,
these look like viruses.
Think before you send
Use the send all feature sparingly. Do you want everyone in your (or
the companys) address book to read what you are about to send?
Many people dont need or want your mail.
Take a deep breath before sending or responding to an angry e-mail.
Its often best to save it in your drafts folder overnight and
read it again in the morning. Many people have regretted an e-mail
dashed off in anger.
Not everybody has your sense of humour. Think about it before you
pass on a joke to everybody in your address book. People lose jobs
because of this mistake.
Typing in capital letters is the same as shouting. Only type words
in capitals for emphasis and then only sparingly. Overusing capitals
makes you look unhinged and people will avoid you and your emails.
Dont assume mail is instantaneous. It can take hours or
even days to be delivered. Even then, the recipient may not be at
their computer when it arrives.
Dont assume the recipient is chained to their
desk. An e-mail invitation to a meeting in an hour or to dinner tonight
may not get read for a few days. If you need them urgently, phone or
A guaranteed way to irritate business people is to send an urgent
message demanding a response at 5pm on a Friday before a long weekend.
Don't do it unless your relationship is already on the rocks.
What is in your mail
Try to send your mail in plain text or HTML. Rich Text and MS Word
mail formats may not work on the recipients computer. They can
also spread viruses.
Be careful with jokes, sarcasm and wry comments. Humour often doesnt
work in email and can offend people. Be friendly, but unless you know
the recipient well dont too jokey.
Run a spell checker before sending your mail, but dont criticise
others spelling. E-mail is an informal medium that works best
when kept casual and friendly. You will irritate people with nit-picking,
particularly when American English is involved.
Make sure the other person can understand you.
using abbreviations and emoticons
only works when the other people know you are talking about.
Don't be too cute
Cutesy emails are fine between friends, but bouncing balls, dancing
girls and flying acrobats irritate a lot of heavy email users. In
the worst case they sent virus and spyware checkers into a frenzy.
Keep emails as plain and simple as possible.
Be careful about what you discuss. E-mail is not private and it could
go anywhere on its way to the sender. If you wouldnt want to
see it on the evening news then dont write it.
Similarly, you need to be cautious with sending confidential business
and personal information over email. E-mail gets stored all over the
place, particularly on corporate servers. Dont assume that anything
you have deleted has gone for good.
At work, avoid making disparaging remarks about other staff, bosses
and clients. The corporate world is full of wrecked careers and law
suits as result of inappropriate comments found in the email archives.
Be careful attacheing documents as they often contain previous edits
or comments that can be read. This is particularly true with Microsoft
If the mail comes back with an error, read the message. While the
messages may be cryptic it will usually tell you why the mail was
rejected. Dont assume your colleague has died or been sacked
just because his mailbox is full.
Set your email up correctly
Get your name right. Mail from Username isnt a good look. Many
people wont open mail from names they dont recognise.
Make sure your return address works, that is the email address that
appears on your email is the address you recieve mail on. It is an
irritant to reply to an address that bounces.
E-mail is one of the most basic and useful Internet tools. Getting
it right makes it even more effective. Keep it simple, keep it cheerful
and make sure the other person can read it without becoming upset.
Originally posted 1 August, 2002.